Culture: Visual Arts

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan

Souzou: Outsider Art From Japan

This is a fantastically bonkers show. It’s a tribute to the Wellcome Collection who have transformed themselves from eccentric displays of strange medical conditions, with wax figures of faces eaten away by Weill’s Disease, to putting on some of the most provocative art shows in the country.

Souzou is a perfect example, and one of the best art exhibitions, for my money, that you’ll see anywhere in the UK.

There isn’t a direct equivalent for the word ‘Souzou’ in English. In Japanese it has a dual meaning – creation and imagination – both of which sum up the works of these 46 self-taught artists living and working within social welfare facilities across Japan.

Outsider art is used to describe work made by artists with little or no tuition. The Surrealists began to take an interest in what they saw as expressions of the subconscious by psychiatric patients.

In Japan, the art form was championed by psychiatrist Ryuzaburo Shikiba, who had previously published studies about the ‘artistic genius’ in relation to Vincent van Gough.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is more unusual than most as it demonstrates how visual imagery can offer a release from the confines of language. These artists have a range of mental illnesses, and seeing the world as they see it, takes us out of our own comfortable view of life.

Take for example Toshiko Yaminishi’s coloured pencil drawings on paper. The swirls of bright yellows, greens, reds and blues are an abstract form of movement that make you dizzy. But what do they portray? It could be anything, but in Yaminishi’s mind they represent his mother.

Holding on to who we are and the fear that arises when we lose a sense of ourselves is picked up in Mineo Ito’s intense pictures of identity. He tries to answer the question of his own identity by writing his name over and over again. Some sheets are completely filled in with his name, and some are not. The blank white space stares back at us, as if to say, what happens now in the vacuum?

Japan puts a high price on perfectionism, exemplified in their beautiful calligraphy. It’s usually so accurately drawn, with a sure hand, and unblemished. And yet here we see what happens when you take away the rigid control. Masataka Aikawa’s characters are badly drawn, petering out  and sprawling diagonally across the page. Even stranger, there are cartoon characters that prop up the calligraphy, of what could be a donkey, a bear or a whale.

It’s all in the eye of the beholder, and what I see as a close-up of Elvis, with a big black quiff and sunglasses, is actually a hair dryer and two cups to its creator, Takashi Shuji.

Sexuality is treated in very different ways by the artists. Masao Obama’s figures on cardboard purloined from the kitchen of the residential facility he lived in have very pronounced, stylised sexual organs.His representation of a vagina looks like a giant glazed original Krispy Kreme doughnut with pins stuck around its circumference.

Most disturbing of all are the dolls with their idiosyncratic names such as Doll Wearing Suspender Belt, Looks a bit like an Alien, and Pinkish Lady Doll.

The ‘Life-Size’ dolls of a man and woman, with their plump limbs stuffed wool yarn, are definitely undersized. They have no genitals but they do have very red lips on their cute and chubby faces.

Souzou is a challenging look into the obsessive mind. These artworks by outsiders from mainstream culture are otherworldly, beautiful and make you look twice. They shake your preconceptions and force you to revisit representation anew.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is on at the Wellcome Collection until 30 June 2013.

Words: Fiona Keating

Jump to comments
Scroll Top